Delaware City’s purveyor of all things crustacean reflects on his legacy
Catching crabs for a living takes long hours, discipline, instinct, and sweat equity. And it helps to pick up a few tricks of the trade.
Just ask Bob “Captain Wiso” Wisowaty. Over more than four decades of crabbing, he learned to add a bar of zinc to his wire crab pots, so that they last longer in saltwater, and he discovered that bait doesn’t hold up in the saltier water near the southern edge of Delaware Bay. Now retired from his forays into the bay, the owner of Wiso’s Crabs & Seafood Market on Route 9 in Delaware City has experienced it all.
Wisowaty is a second-generation captain. “My father was a waterman his entire life,” he says. “He used to captain a shuttle boat that went across the Delaware Bay to Fort Delaware (on Pea Patch Island) back in the 1950s. This was a time when there was no Delaware Coast Guard and very few boat operators, so in case of a sea emergency, my father went out for the call.”
Across the street from Wiso’s Market is the Delaware City library, which has dedicated a space for a small group of panels that pay homage to Wisowaty’s father, a legacy that is well known throughout the area. This mini-traveling exhibition resides at the library in the winter months and returns to the market during crab season.
It’s no surprise that Wisowaty followed in his father’s footsteps. As a child, he grew up in the building that’s now occupied by Crabby Dick’s, another Delaware City crab restaurant, now owned by John Buchheit III and Dale Slotter. He learned to crab by working as a deckhand on his father’s boat. And during his spare time, he says, “I would crab right out front there,” pointing toward what is now Fort Delaware State Park.
It was apparent from an early age that he had inherited the crustacean-catching gene. With just a few hand lines, he was able to catch enough to sell to neighbors and friends. By the time he reached college, he was using his father’s boat to tend 40-50 crab pots. And before he graduated from the University of Delaware with a business degree, he had a custom boat, Wiso II, built to grow his crabbing enterprise.
Wisowaty’s mother didn’t approve. As a liquor store owner, she worked 15 hours a day, six days a week, so she was adamant that he “not get into business.” To appease his mother, he tried working at a temp agency with “vacation days and benefits,” but that lasted only a couple of days.
Like most young adults, he didn’t want to do what his parents told him. “You don’t get that kind of wisdom when you’re young,” he says.
A crabber’s life
Early on in his career, Wisowaty admits that “he wasn’t the best crabber.” So what does it take to be great? “You’ve got to sense where they’re moving,” he says. “They don’t tend to congregate all in one area; they like to hang out in pockets. Crabbers must be smart, aggressive and constantly move equipment to find those pockets.”
As a young crabber straight out of college, he took a different approach than most commercial crabbers. Instead of “super harvesting” (which, he says, means catching as many crabs as possible until late afternoon), he used his business acumen and would get off the boat around 2 p.m. to sell his morning catch. This allowed him to sell most, if not all, of the day’s catch, rather than spend the entire day on the boat.
As his knowledge and experience grew over the next 18 years, he picked up other insights, like keeping his crab pots clean. “You have to keep shifting the crab pot,” he says. “They tend to get dirty and grow ‘hair’ from the salt water. Crabs like a clean pot, so you have to continuously bring them in and out of the water to clean them.”
His hard work and dedication got him a seat on the state’s Advisory Council of Shell Fisheries in the 1990s, where he served four three-year terms. The council is appointed by the governor and advises the state’s Director of Fish and Wildlife on all matters relating to the “control and direction of the shellfish industry and the protection, conservation and propagation of shellfish in [the] State.”
In 2007, Wisowaty retired from the water due to hearing damage from prolonged exposure to sustained loud noises on his various boats, allowing him to focus on Wiso’s Crabs.
He emphasizes that his is a carry-out and not a sit-down business, though there are some picnic tables and a counter where customers can eat. In addition to selling and steaming crabs, Wiso’s offers an abundance of seafood dishes, including seafood po’boys and fish tacos, an item added last season.
He says most customers live within 30 miles of Delaware City, though Wisowaty’s wife, Joanne, says they have a couple of regulars who come from as far away as New York City.
“Our customers and staff are our friends; we treat ‘em like family,” says Joanne. “Some of our customers’ kids have grown up with us. They’re 12-years-old one day, and now they’re 22.” She treats the children with a free Twizzler Licorice.
Wisowaty also briefly owned Wiso’s Crab House, the restaurant that lies less than 100 feet from the
market. It’s now owned by his ex-wife, Kathy, and is named, appropriately, Kathy’s Crab House & Family Restaurant.
Love at first click
“Captain Wiso” and Joanne are a match made on eHarmony. “After answering those initial 250 questions, we were meant to be together,” she says. “We had so much in common, from little things like our love of country music to our favorite pastime—rock and fossil hunting.”
After meeting online, the two were married a year later at the Chapel of Flowers in Las Vegas. Says Wisowaty: “Our ceremony was filmed on closed-circuit television (streamed live) so that our family and friends could tune in to watch.”
Their love for each other and for their business is strong. Together they work hard to keep Wiso’s Crabs running smoothly. Wisowaty works the back-of-house, while Joanne works the front.
They live directly across from the Wiso’s Crabs, which is filled to the gills with odds and ends collected from their travels across the U.S. Each year, they go out west to escape winter in Delaware, “find adventure,” and discover new rocks to add to their collection.
Next year they hope to pan for gold, but those plans are on the back burner as they prepare for the 2018 crab season, which started last month and runs through October.
Wisowaty hopes that Robert, his son with ex-wife Kathy, will take over the business, but he knows that may not be in the cards. As he puts it, “this generation has a different mentality,” which he understands and appreciates.
Says Joanne: “The kids these days want to forge their own path and make new ways and traditions.”
That’s fine with the Wisowatys, who have taken steps like hiring additional help to lessen the burden. Captain Wiso doesn’t want the business to stagnate, so while he’s still at the helm, he says “we are trying out new ideas, improving ourselves, so that we can keep evolving.”